So that story of the Smiths fan who held a station here hostage in the '80s? It's true...well, sort of
Update, 2/25/13: The Smiths '80s radio station takeover: Here's what really happened according to the original offense report filed by the Lakewood Police Department, plus letters written by the suspect to his parents prior to the incident.
By Dave Herrera and Josiah Hesse
Well, so, we finally got to the bottom of this whole alleged Smiths radio ambush we told you about earlier this week that supposedly took place over two decades ago. We set out on a mission to once and for all debunk this long held myth involving a deranged gunman who apparently forced a local radio station to play four hours of continuous music by the Smiths. Turns out, the story is actually true -- well, sort of. It happened, alright, just not the way everybody thinks it did. And from everybody we've spoken with, nobody quite seems to agree on what exactly happened that day or how it went down.
To Air is human...to research is divine:
As you might recall, the incident first came to our attention through Mark Simpson's biography, Saint Morrissey: A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan. In his book, Simpson -- presumably based on a 1994 Details interview with Morrissey by William Shaw -- details an incident in which a fan supposedly stages a hostile takeover of a radio station and demands the station air songs by the Smiths. The story, which is long rumored to have inspired the plot line for Airheads, the 1994 movie starring Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler, in which they embark on a similar scheme, reportedly forms the basis for a forthcoming film titled Shoplifters of the World.
Problem is, we couldn't find anybody, locally or otherwise, to either confirm or deny the validity of the story, which, frankly, to us, seemed a bit too fantastical to be true -- mostly because we lived here at the time (well, one of us anyway), and we have absolutely zero recollection of something like this happening. I mean, surely we would've heard something about this, right? You'd think. Considering how dramatically the news media coverage has changed since then, though, it's easy to see how something like this would have escaped our notice now, what with the steady stream of information disseminated via social media, coupled the non-stop churn of the 24/7 news cycle. If something like this were to happen today, it would make headlines, but only for a short period of time before ultimately being pushed out of prominence by another barrage of stories.
But back then, this had to be major news, right? You'd think. Not so much, it seems. The whole thing had us mystified. So we decided to summon our vast investigative powers. I mean, who doesn't love a little myth busting -- or Smiths busting, in this case. So in our first attempts to begin debunking the myth, we reached out to both Simpson and a source working on the film, and while, separately, they each expressed that they firmly believe the tale to be true, neither could cite a credible source. In due diligence, we also spoke with Gil Asakawa, Westword's music editor at the time, and he didn't recall anything like this ever happening (although we were later able to dig up his write-up in our archives -- more on that in a minute).
A few days later, thanks to a tip from our pal and fellow Morrissey aficionado, Tyler Jacobson of Lipgloss and Mile High Soul Club fame -- who swore he remembered seeing a news clipping that had been tucked into a "Everyday is Like Sunday" cassette single a friend had loaned him in the late '80s -- we finally tracked down the original write-up in the Denver Post, confirming that the is incident indeed took place. The Post's account, however, differs from how it was later referenced, first by Details in 1994 and later in Mark's Simpson's 2005 biography.
Details, Details: The origin of this particular urban Smith and how it's been perpetuated over the years:
"Once, in 1987, a young man in Denver held the local radio station at gunpoint, demanding that they play only Smiths songs. For four hours they complied and the Colorado airwaves were filled with the then-unfamiliar sound of Morrissey, until the police persuaded the gunman to back down. When Morrissey heard what had happened he felt, of course, extreme pleasure. 'But how did you know about it?' he demands. 'I've never come across anybody who knew about it.' The fact that the siege has never been properly reported anywhere outrages Morrissey. 'If it was any other artist, it would have been world news. But because it was poor old tatty Smiths it was of no consequence whatsoever.'"
"In 1987 a distressed young man in Denver, Colorado held his local radio station hostage insisting, at gun point, they play nothing but Smiths records. This they did -- for four hours -- inflicting Morrissey on the good Christian people of Colorado, who up until that point had been for the most part blissfully unaware of his existence. Eventually, the police besieging the building persuaded the unhappy young man to give himself up.
This was both an unhinged, impotent romantic gesture and a dangerous, revolutionary act. If any music ever had a chance of changing the world, or at least giving it some seriously bad dreams, it was the music of The Smiths. The fervent zeal of this mad lad who forced the Denver radio station to saturate the airwaves of his hometown with records by this obscure, depraved British band was, in its own casualty-free way more 'murderous' and ambitious than the rage of the two young shallow nihilists who went on a shooting spree many years later in their High School in Littleton, also in Colorado."
Keep reading for more on the story, including Gil Asakawa's piece in Westword, along with quotes from people who actually worked at the station at the time.
So what really happened?
According to Post, which first reported the incident that was later confirmed by Asakawa, who made reference to the arrest in his Off Beat column in Westword the following week, an unnamed eighteen-year-old Arvada man spent what police officials at the time speculated was months staking out the studios of Y108 (aka KRXY, the now defunct CHR station that used to broadcast on the 107.5 frequency now occupied by KS107), with presumed plans to ambush the station and take several employees hostage and then force them at gunpoint to play songs of the Smiths. That part of the story matches up with everything else that had previously been written.
What happened next, however, is where myth and reality seem to respectfully part ways, and the story takes on a life of its own. According to the Post, the gunman showed up at the station armed with a rifle, plus seven Smiths cassette tapes and an album, but in reality, his mettle dissolved apparently before he was able to execute his plan, and he never made it inside the building. Instead, he sat in the parking lot and reportedly asked for the police to be notified, after which he reportedly ended up turning himself in.
From the Post's article:
"A last minute change of heart apparently averted the hijacking of a Lakewood radio station but left an Arvada teenage in jail Wednesday.
The young man, 18, was arrested Tuesday evening in the parking lot of the radio station Y108 at 7075 W. Hampden Ave. after he called a station employee over to his car handed the employee a rifle and asked that police be called, said police spokesman John Hunt.
'I was going to hijack the station. I wanted to make them play some music,' blurted out the suspect when police arrived. He was taken into custody without incident and jailed under a $50,000 bond for investigation of attempted extortion and attempted kidnapping."
After some digging, we finally found a brief mention in Asakawa's column, which ran the following week after the incident. According to his account, the gunman actually made it into the station, at which point he reconsidered and turned over his weapon.
From Asakawa's Off Beat column in Westword:
"Security by Smiths and Wesson: Radio station KRXY (Y-108), the Lakewood-based Top 40 station, got a request that was hard to ignore. An eighteen-year-old Arvada man entered the station with a rifle to insist the station play seven tapes and an album by the Smiths, the now-defunct British band led by the whiny-voiced singer, Morrissey. [sic] The man was arrested after he changed his mind and gave the weapon to a station employee. He's now in the Jefferson County Jail, awaiting a psychiatric evaluation. The gun-toting Smiths fan set a dangerous precedent, using scare tactics to try and control the media. No radio station, no matter what the format, deserves that kind of treatment. But the lighter side, the fan should have known better than to request the Smiths from a Top 40 station. As far as Top 40's concerned, Morrissey might as well be a Martian. For his Smiths fix, the guy should've thrown his gun into the lake and tuned in to Fort Collins' KTCL, which plays the band in regular rotation."
In his biography, Simpson draws a loose and seemingly incidental correlation to the Columbine tragedy, which of course happened a decade later. The irony is that the arresting officer in this particular Smiths-related incident was actually a member of the SWAT unit at the time and later also happened to be one of the officers who responded to Columbine, which sits almost exactly five miles to the south, on that tragic afternoon in 1999. We spoke with the officer, and for his part, some 25 years later, he had no recollection of the incident.
Continue on for more on the story, including quotes from station employees who worked at Y108 at the time
Okay, now that we know what, we should probably ask Y:
In the more than two decades that have passed since this incident happened, things have obviously changed dramatically. For starters, with the vast array of listening options these days from Internet streaming and iPhone apps to satellite radio and terrestrial radio (not to mention Spotify and Pandora), it's hard to imagine that it would even occur to anyone to attempt to pull a stunt off like this one.
Besides the fact that most stations these days are mostly inaccessible, ensconced and fortress-like in nondescript mid-rises in densely populated commercial areas rather than some converted house studio in the foothills, accessible to anyone with a gun and an ill-conceived plan, a takeover plot such as this would ultimately prove to be exasperating. These days, the playlists are completely automated, so it's not exactly like the DJs are sitting around spinning records.
We caught up with several former Y108 employees, and each person we spoke with seems to have a different recollection of the events of that day. Jim Prain, general manager of sales, even remembers the kind of weapon the kid had. "It was a small armed, single-shot, bolt-action 22 rifle," he recalls, noting that he knows this because he had one just like it as a kid. Mark Bolke, meanwhile, remembers returning to the station and seeing the guy in the parking lot, not yet arrested, and Bolke says he stayed inside for safety.
Out of the DJs we reached out to -- Dom Testa, Dave Otto and Michael Moon, all of whom were very well known and well regarded on-air personalities in Denver at the time and are still working in radio, here in Denver and in different parts of the country -- none were on the air at the time, but they each remember the day the incident happened.
"Truth be told, I was away from the radio station at the time it happened, but I did return about an hour later," writes Testa, now co-host of the long running Mix 100 morning show with Jane London. "The disturbed young man never entered the building. Our receptionist told me that he was detained in the Y108 parking lot while police were summoned. I'm pretty sure that he never made it inside.
"I also believe that he never actually threatened anyone with a gun (if he even had one), but mostly spewed nonsense, including his passionate request for The Smiths," his note continues. "Perhaps he SAID he had a weapon. Hey, in those days we had our share of interesting folks listening to the station...and we didn't even PLAY The Smith's, for crying out loud."
Testa concurs with Asakawa's assertion about KTCL, but also thinks that "the better option for a Morrissey fan at that time would've been 'BCO," he points out. "I suppose Boulder would've been too far of a walk, which is too bad, because I'll bet my friend Ginger would've at least dropped in 'How Soon Is Now' just to placate the poor dude.
"This is one of those legends that bloats with time," Testa concludes. "It's morphed from 'detained in the parking lot' to 'held hostage for four hours at gunpoint.'"
Indeed, but until we get a chance to read the full police report -- which we've requested and should hopefully have in our hands later this afternoon -- we can't say for certain exactly what happened that day. But keep an on this page for an update, most likely on Monday morning, when we'll post a full rundown of the arrest report.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.